Big Ten: Penn State Nittany Lions
All have seen their recruiting surge in recent years, though the way each program has recruited is different. It's garnered positive results for all of them: Clemson has been in the College Football Playoff each of the last three years and won a title; Georgia fell just short of winning it all this season; and Penn State has been on the cusp of making it each of the last two seasons.
How have these programs done it?
Clemson: Stockpiling elite playmakers in the passing game
The Tigers have put together productive offensive attacks thanks to their recruiting at key skill positions. Since 2014 (the year they signed Deshaun Watson), the Tigers have signed eight quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends who ranked in the top three nationally at their position. That's more than any other program in the FBS over that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
This year is no different, with Clemson signing the nation's No. 1 pocket passer QB prospect, Trevor Lawrence (who is No. 2 overall in the ESPN 300).
Of course, it doesn't hurt when you've been as successful as the Tigers have been on the defensive line too, another key part of their recent success.
Georgia: Keeping top in-state prospects home
Georgia is one of the nation's most fertile recruiting lands, and since Kirby Smart took over the program, the Bulldogs have done a good job protecting their home state.
In the last two recruiting classes, the state of Georgia has produced 12 prospects ranked in the top 50 of the ESPN 300, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Bulldogs have signed nine of those, none bigger, perhaps, than this year's No. 1 overall player: dual-threat quarterback Justin Fields, who hails from Kennesaw, Georgia.
Penn State: Creating high-end depth in front seven
The Nittany Lions have made it a point to attack defensive line and linebacker. Chances are, if you're really good there, you're going to win a lot of football games.
In the last four years, Penn State has signed 13 prospects in the ESPN 300 who were from one of those two positions. That's the second most in the Big Ten and eighth most in the FBS in that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
That's a big shift from previous years, when the program was hindered by recruiting restrictions. From 2011 to '14, the team didn't sign a single front seven recruit who was ranked in the ESPN 300.
Big things happened in the Big Ten in Week 2, headlined by disappointment at the Horseshoe as No. 2 Ohio State fell to No. 5 Oklahoma in a premier Saturday night clash. The lowlights extended to Northwestern, Nebraska and Rutgers, which allowed a program from the MAC to reach a new high.
Ohio State's loss means Penn State is now secure atop the power rankings after dispatching Pitt, followed by an unclear picture at the next three spots as Wisconsin and Michigan played sluggishly at times in victories on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Maryland and Michigan State held serve. Minnesota, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois impressed, creating chaos in the bottom half of these rankings. And Iowa provided the most entertaining performance of the week.
1. Penn State (previous ranking: 2): The defending Big Ten champ is back on top after a 33-14 win over bitter rival Pitt in which Trace McSorley and Saquon Barkley simply did their thing. Nothing spectacular was necessary in this win, though tight end Mike Gesicki caught a pair of touchdowns in the first quarter and the Nittany Lions benefited from three Pitt turnovers.
2. Wisconsin (3): Visiting Florida Atlantic hung around long enough to keep things interesting before freshman Jonathan Taylor’s third touchdown provided the final margin in a 31-14 win for the Badgers. Taylor rushed for 223 yards and Wisconsin held Lane Kiffin’s Owls to less than 250 yards in total offense.
3. Ohio State (1): The Buckeyes fell apart in the second half at home as Oklahoma rolled to a 31-16 win to avenge last year's loss to Ohio State in Norman. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield used Ohio Stadium as a platform to bolster his Heisman campaign, then planted the OU flag at midfield before the Sooners danced on the vaunted “O.” Ouch. Ohio State’s margin for error in 2017 is all but gone.
4. Michigan (4): The Wolverines led by just a field goal late in the third quarter before a decisive finish cemented a 36-14 win over Cincinnati at the Big House. Ty Isaac gained a career-high 133 yards on the ground, but expect coach Jim Harbaugh to work his team especially hard before a Week 3 visit from Air Force.
5. Maryland (5): There's not much to take away from a 63-17 rout of Towson, the Terps’ highest point total since 1954. If nothing else, they’re taking care of business under second-year coach D.J. Durkin. No letdown here after the upset win to open the season at Texas as freshman QB Kasim Hill played well in his starting debut and D.J. Moore scored three touchdowns.
6. Iowa (6): The Hawkeyes escaped Ames with a thrilling 44-41 overtime win over rival Iowa State. Iowa came back from 10 points down in the fourth quarter for its fourth victory in the past five games of the Cy-Hawk series. Defensive end Parker Hesse came up with a big interception late, and first-year QB Nathan Stanley threw for 333 yards and five scores.
7. Michigan State (9): The Spartans haven’t surrendered an offensive touchdown in eight quarters after a 28-14 win over Western Michigan, which found the end zone in East Lansing on a 67-yard fumble return and a 100-yard kickoff return. Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke threw for 161 yards and rushed for 81. The Spartans, one win from matching their 2016 total, get an open date before hosting Notre Dame in Week 4.
8. Indiana (10): Redshirt freshman QB Peyton Ramsey replaced struggling starter Richard Lagow in the second quarter and completed 16 of 20 passes for 173 yards and two scores as the Hoosiers rolled past host Virginia 34-17. Indiana was solid in all phases, scoring on a punt return by J-Shun Harris and holding the Cavaliers to 314 total yards.
9. Nebraska (8): Future performances will tell us if the Cornhuskers found themselves in the second half, nearly rallying from a 28-point deficit before falling 42-35 at Oregon. Nebraska held the Ducks scoreless after halftime, but Cornhuskers QB Tanner Lee threw the last of his four interceptions with two minutes to play after getting the chance to drive for a touchdown to force overtime.
10. Minnesota (11) The Golden Gophers routed Oregon State 48-14 on the road, an impressive feat despite the Beavers’ status among the worst teams in the Power 5. Minnesota forced three turnovers and rushed for 253 yards, led by Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who combined to run for four touchdowns. In addition, Conor Rhoda appeared to take control of the quarterback spot.
11. Purdue (12): Purdue got a nice 44-21 win -- coach Jeff Brohm’s first with the Boilermakers -- over MAC contender Ohio on Friday night. David Blough took over for Elijah Sindelar at quarterback in the second quarter and led Purdue to points on four consecutive possessions en route to a 558-yard team offensive output.
12. Northwestern (7): Well, the Wildcats’ struggles with Nevada in Week 1 were apparently no fluke. Duke dominated Northwestern in a 41-17 win in Durham behind 305 yards passing and 108 rushing from QB Daniel Jones. The problems appear to run deep for Northwestern as Clayton Thorson threw a pair of interceptions and Justin Jackson rushed for just 18 yards on seven carries.
13. Illinois (14): Progress, for sure, from the Illini, who moved to 2-0 with a 20-7 win over favored Western Kentucky out of Conference USA. Illinois held the high-powered WKU offense, which led the nation in scoring last season, to 244 total yards and got 111 rushing yards from freshman Mike Epstein and an interception returned for a touchdown by Julian Jones.
14. Rutgers (13): If you needed confirmation that the Scarlet Knights aren’t progressing like other programs in the Big Ten, look no further than a 16-13 loss to Eastern Michigan on Saturday -- the Eagles' first win over a Power 5 foe in 59 tries, including 39 against Big Ten competition. EMU took the lead on a 24-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter and staged two defensive stands to secure the win.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Courtney Maholtz laughed when her fiance Chad suggested they get married in the parking lot outside Beaver Stadium before a Penn State football game. She must be a keeper, though, because he managed to talk her into tailgating for the reception.
The Maholtzs were married Friday night at the Eisenhower Chapel on Penn State's campus. On Saturday, they drove Chad's blue-and-white RV on the same four-mile trek it makes most Saturdays in the fall. This time they packed a wedding cake and invited a band to join them. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 friends and family joined the party, but Chad was happy to be part of a bigger crowd.
"We couldn't think of a better place to do it," he said. "We're celebrating with 107,000 of our closest friends and family."
Maholtz graduated from Penn State in 1993 and has been attending Nittany Lions games since the '70s. His new bride is a State College native and has been at Chad's side at every football, basketball and hockey game Penn State has played for the past several years. She said she wasn't quite sure how her family would react when she mentioned their reception idea, but they immediately loved it.
"This is just perfectly fitting for us," she said, wearing a veil and a tiara with a Nittany Lions logo in the center. "We're definitely unique."
The honeymoon, of course, will have to wait until football season finishes. They are planning to head to the Caribbean, but Chad has plans to work in a stop along the way to the bowl game where Penn State lands.
The Big Ten enjoyed a successful opening week, with 10 wins in 12 nonconference games, losing by only respectable margins to returning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville (Purdue) and 2016 College Football Playoff participant Washington (Rutgers).
The stakes rise a bit in Week 2, headlined, of course, by a visit from Oklahoma to face Ohio State on Saturday night (7:30 ET, ABC) and rivalries are rekindled in Pennsylvania and Iowa.
Visit our college football PickCenter page for additional information on these games and many more. Here’s our forecast for Week 2.
Northwestern at Duke, Saturday, noon, ESPNU
Dan Murphy: Had to pick at least one upset this week, and this is the best candidate. Northwestern looked shaky at times in its opening win over Nevada. Duke quarterback Daniel Jones can go toe-to-toe with Clayton Thorson in what should be a fun one in Durham, North Carolina. Duke 35, Northwestern 31
Mitch Sherman: Don’t put too much stock into the details of an opener. Remember two years ago, when the Wildcats beat Christian McCaffrey and Stanford in early September? Teams change, and they change fast at this time of year. I still believe in the Cats as a serious contender in the Big Ten West. Northwestern 35, Duke 24
Tom VanHaaren: This one is tough because I thought Northwestern was going to surprise a lot of people this season. Week 1 against Nevada was a win, but it wasn’t very convincing. Duke just threw up 60 on N.C. Central and had a relaxing time doing it. I’m George Costanza when it comes to predicting things; the opposite usually happens, but I’m sticking with the Wildcats. Northwestern 31, Duke 24
Iowa at Iowa State, Saturday, noon, ESPN2
Sherman: This series often defies logic. And sometimes it defines seasons, such as in 2012, when Iowa State last played in a bowl game. The Cyclones won that CyHawk thriller 9-6 en route to a magical 6-7 finish, while the Hawkeyes dipped to 4-8. There’s more magic in store for the Cyclones this year. Iowa State 17, Iowa 14
VanHaaren: I underestimated the Hawkeyes' defense in Week 1 and chose Wyoming over Iowa. Hawkeyes fans let me know about it, so I’m not making the same mistake twice. I’ll take Iowa on the road as long as the turnovers are minimal. Iowa 24, Iowa State 13
Murphy: The Hawkeyes' defense showed last week that there is a legitimate reason to believe in Iowa this season. They'll hold the Cyclones to 100 or so yards on the ground and provide plenty of cushion for the offense to bring home a win. Iowa 20, Iowa State 9
Pittsburgh at No. 4 Penn State, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., ABC
Murphy: Nothing in State College feels the same as it did a year ago, when the pitchforks were pointed at James Franklin after a loss to Pitt. The Nittany Lions are now the most entertaining offense in the Big Ten and have the firepower to blow past Pitt. Penn State 42, Pitt 24
VanHaaren: The last three home teams have won this game, and the last three teams with the most rushing yards have also won. Pitt won last season running behind James Conner. This season, it’s the Saquon Barkley show. The Nittany Lions are out to avenge last season’s loss. Penn State 38, Pitt 21
Sherman: Penn State is so much better than it was at this time last year. I have nothing else to add. Penn State 45, Pitt 17
Nebraska at Oregon, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Fox
Sherman: Nebraska tried to play it safe last week, guarding against the big Arkansas State plays. Do that against the Ducks and Oregon will turn those short receptions into long touchdowns. I think Nebraska coach Bob Diaco’s defense will show up to play, but first-year QB Tanner Lee will wobble at a raucous Autzen Stadium. Oregon 37, Nebraska 27
VanHaaren: Oregon put up 77 on Southern Utah in the first week. I know it’s Southern Utah, but 77 is a lot of points. Nebraska won 43-36 against Arkansas State in its first game, so there are still some kinks to work out. This game is happening too early in the season for Nebraska. Oregon 52, Nebraska 41
Murphy: No need to overthink the math here. Oregon gained more than 700 yards in its season opener. The Huskers gave up 497. Lee won't be able to help them solve that problem. Oregon 44, Nebraska 36
No. 5 Oklahoma at No. 2 Ohio State, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC
VanHaaren: Indiana attacked Ohio State’s corners last week, passing outside the hashes on 86 percent of QB Richard Lagow’s throws. Baker Mayfield ranks first in completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdown percentage on throws outside the hashes, but I think Ohio State is going to learn from the first game and win this matchup with Oklahoma. Ohio State 42, Oklahoma 31
Murphy: The Buckeyes won this monster matchup a year ago thanks to their best deep-passing performance of the year. And while that's been a focus all offseason, it will be the uber-athletic front seven that helps them beat the Sooners this time around, doing just enough to contain Mayfield. Ohio State 30, Oklahoma 28
Sherman: The Sooners haven’t lost since Ohio State stormed Norman a year ago. Look for Oklahoma to start strong this time around. You might not see a college game this year that features better play in the trenches, especially when Oklahoma possesses the ball. Watch that matchup. I agree with Dan that the Buckeyes will eventually get to Mayfield. Ohio State 34, Oklahoma 31
- Purdue over Ohio
- Maryland over Towson
- No. 9 Wisconsin over Florida Atlantic
- No. 8 Michigan over Cincinnati
- Michigan State over Western Michigan
- Rutgers over Eastern Michigan
- Indiana over Virginia
- Western Kentucky over Illinois
- Minnesota over Oregon State
All three committed to Penn State in 2013 and signed the following February, weeks after an effervescent new coach named James Franklin took over. They don't remember the gloomy predictions for the program immediately after the sanctions came down:
Worse than the death penalty ...
Won't recover until 2020 or 2022, at the earliest ...
May never be the same ...
Five years and one day later, the players arrived at Big Ten media days to represent the defending league champion. Following a shocking run to the conference title, Penn State will enter the 2017 season as a top-10 team and a College Football Playoff candidate.
"They've gotten to the other side," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said Monday.
Faster than anyone expected.
"When you tell me about that [forecast] -- 2020, 2022 -- when I hear that, it epitomizes what Penn State is about," Cabinda told ESPN.com on Monday. "What other university has something like this happen where hundreds of football alumni fly in just to come and talk to the team and tell [players], 'Hey, this is where you need to be.' They're done, their time is over, they don't owe us anything. But they'll take the time, buy a flight, come and talk to every senior, every junior, every sophomore, every freshman, and say, 'Stay here. This is where you need to be.'
"That's powerful, it really is. That shows the resiliency this place has."
On Monday, Delany acknowledged the "difficult, difficult road" Penn State traversed following the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal and the ensuing NCAA penalties. He said Penn State faced challenges he had never seen in his administrative career -- far beyond a postseason ban and scholarship losses. He praised the school for making changes and complying with requirements set forth. He described Penn State's culture, which NCAA president Mark Emmert eviscerated while announcing the sanctions, as "one of the great ones in the country."
"Maybe the least important [thing] is how good their football team is," Delany said. "But their football team is now healthy."
After an ahead-of-schedule title run, Penn State could be positioned to match or even exceed last year’s performance. The Nittany Lions return arguably college football's most exciting backfield with running back Saquon Barkley and quarterback Trace McSorley, who will again operate for innovative playcaller Joe Moorhead.
Wide receiver Chris Godwin, king of the 50-50 ball, departed for the NFL, but Penn State should have more depth to go along with the springy Gesicki at tight end. The offensive line, impacted more by the sanctions than any other position group, not merely could be improved but "has a chance to be special," Franklin said Monday. The defense has some potential holes but brings back key pieces like Cabinda at linebacker and Allen at safety.
There's something else, too. As Penn State moves further from the most turbulent stretch in its history, it establishes more stability under Franklin, who signed the entire roster other than the fifth-year players. Franklin inherited Joe Paterno's last recruits as well as the players signed by Bill O'Brien.
"They faced three different coaches and three different mindsets and three different goals," Allen said of his former teammates. "That's like someone that’s been through three religions: [Islam], Christianity and Buddhism. You can't get the same message across. Now that we all understand one message and Coach Franklin's goals, we can teach it to everyone else."
Sitting in a conference room Monday, Allen recalled the criticism he received from people back home when he committed to Penn State. The program was barely a year into the sanctions, and the prospect of playing in a bowl game -- much less the Big Ten championship -- seemed far away.
The path seniors like Allen have taken -- committing to a program with an uncertain future, slogging through two middling seasons, breaking through last fall -- makes it easier for Franklin to motivate.
"They've seen both spectrums," Franklin said. "If you're a kid and you go somewhere and all you've had is success, people patting you on the back, and then you hit the bottom, that's hard to deal with. Where if you've had to earn it, the way we have, you appreciate it more, you respect it more and you can really see both perspectives."
Penn State had to earn wins in close games, a problem early in Franklin's tenure. While Penn State’s 24-21 win over Ohio State -- fueled by a 17-0 surge in the fourth quarter -- provided evidence of what the team could achieve, the swing game came two weeks earlier, with less national fanfare, as Penn State outlasted Minnesota in overtime.
"If we don't come back against Minnesota," Gesicki said, "the Ohio State game, honestly, doesn't have as much meaning."
Penn State won its final five regular-season games by an average of 28.2 points before rallying to beat Wisconsin and win just its first Big Ten championship since 2008 and its fourth since joining the conference.
"After winning this year, we truly realized what Happy Valley is," Cabinda said. "People are going to work with smiles on their faces every day. It really is, no exaggeration, just brighter. Everything's just better. People are happier."
Added Gesicki: "They were just waiting for it to come back."
But the forecast in college football, like in central Pennsylvania, can change in an instant. A Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance solidified success for a program that was not supposed to appear on the national radar for several more years. But the way the Rose Bowl went -- Penn State was down 13, then up 15 following a 28-point third quarter, but allowed 10 points in the final 80 seconds of a 52-49 loss to USC -- left players unfulfilled. Allen said reaching such a stage without winning only makes players want to return more.
The shock value of Penn State's season made the wild swings throughout the fall more pronounced. A repeat in 2017 would be less surprising but more validating, proof that Penn State will be a factor for years to come.
"For who we want to be, the programs we're competing with, they've been having the types of years like we had last year for a number of years," Franklin said. "For us to put another really good year together and be part of the conversation is critical."
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You know when to watch them. You know where to watch them. Now it's time to figure out which Big Ten games are going to be the most important ones to watch in 2017.
The cutthroat East Division has plenty of high-powered matchups slated for the coming fall both in league play and in nonconference games earlier in the season. Let's take a look at the high-stakes battles that will have the most impact on the divisional race in the East, and largely on the college football landscape at large.
Ohio State vs. Penn State, Oct. 28
Let's start with the obvious. The defending conference champions visit the likely preseason No. 1 team in late October. If anyone is going to go toe-to-toe with Urban Meyer's high-powered Buckeyes, the Nittany Lions are a good bet. Penn State will head to the Horseshoe one week after another monster matchup against Michigan.
For the sake of keeping this list from getting too repetitive, let's lump the meetings between those three programs (Michigan plays Ohio State on the final Saturday of the season in a game that is, as usual, one of college football's biggest of the year) together. Whoever comes out of that round robin looking the best will more than likely have a strong case for a slot in the College Football Playoff. The stakes won't get any higher.
Ohio State vs. Oklahoma, Sept. 9
The second week of the season is loaded with intriguing and potentially season-shaping games. None will be a bigger draw than the top-10 rematch in Columbus. Ohio State beat the Sooners last season in Oklahoma with four passing touchdowns. The Buckeyes' tweaked passing attack for 2017 will get a chance to shine in prime time. If it succeeds, a victory would help the Big Ten's reputation as early-season narratives start to pick up steam and provide an early bullet point for Urban Meyer's playoff resume.
Penn State vs. Pittsburgh, Sept. 9
A few hours before kickoff in Columbus, the Nittany Lions will be looking for revenge against in-state rival Pitt. The first meeting between these two programs in 16 years provided some drama a year ago when Trace McSorley drove the Penn State offense down to the 30-yard line before he was intercepted in the final minutes of a 42-39 loss. After a season opener against Akron, the Saturday afternoon game in Happy Valley will give McSorley & Co. a chance to prove that they are picking up where they left off at the end of last season.
Michigan at Wisconsin, Nov. 18
If both teams hold their form throughout the regular season, this will be the top cross-divisional game of the year. The Badgers -- favorites in the West -- will get a chance to prove they're worthy competition for the East Division and pick up an eye-catching victory on a schedule that doesn't have many other opponents that rise above pedestrian. Michigan has to make this trip one week before hosting the rival Buckeyes. A win over Wisconsin would give the Wolverines a little more wiggle room in their championship hopes if they end up splitting with Penn State and Ohio State.
It doesn’t take long to think of college football games that hinge on a major special teams play. Whether it’s a last-second field-goal attempt or a field-flipping punt return, a strong third phase is usually the difference that can turn one or two losses into wins. A weak one can quickly turn a couple wins into losses.
In the past two weeks, we’ve reviewed the Big Ten’s cream of the crop at key position groups on both sides of the ball. We wrap up our list of the league’s best units by taking a look at special teams.
Best of the best: According to ESPN’s special teams efficiency rankings, only two teams (Stanford and Memphis) were more effective on special teams in 2016 than Michigan. The Wolverines led the Big Ten in several special teams stats. Despite losing do-it-all kicker Kenny Allen and do-it-all returner Jabrill Peppers, they should be a formidable group again this fall.
Quinn Nordin will take over placekicking duties for Allen, and the big-legged sophomore made a good early impression by knocking down a 48-yard field goal with plenty of room to spare during the spring game. A whole host of young athletes are in the running to take over for Peppers in the return game. And as electric as he was, Michigan's best plays while lining up against a kicker came on blocks. The Wolverines blocked a combined seven kicks and punts a year ago – more than any other power five school. This year, special teams coach Chris Partridge said the goal is to focus more on breaking big returns than blocking kicks.
Next in line: Penn State returns a trio of talented specialists in the kicking game. Redshirt senior Tyler Davis tied for the league's best field-goal percentage by hitting 22 of 24 attempts last season, although his longest attempt was only 40 yards out. Blake Gillikin set a freshman school record by averaging 42.8 yards per punt, including 13 attempts that traveled at least 50 yards. And Joey Julius added an extra dimension to the Nittany Lions’ kickoff coverage by being as punishing of a tackler as any kicker in recent memory. With the athletes to make big plays in the return game, Penn State is set up well for all angles of special teams.
Wisconsin is another team to watch, especially as the Badgers expect to get placekicker Rafael Gaglianone back after the Brazilian missed most of 2016 with an injury.
Don’t sleep on: Iowa was among the league’s most efficient special teams units a year ago. Assistant coach LeVar Woods said this spring that he’s had starters lining up outside his office to ask about playing on special teams this offseason. The Hawkeyes have to replace several key figures -- most notably returner Desmond King -- but the focus on that area of the field and the dividends it paid last year bode well for Kirk Ferentz’s team.
Developing the deep threat was a common theme among Big Ten teams this spring. As the conference continue to leave its reputation for boring offenses in the dust, a pack of talented pass-catchers should have chances to shine this season.
Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts. This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. Next up is a look at the best receiving corps in the conference.
Best of the best: Penn State is stacked with veteran options in the passing game this fall. Seniors DaeSean Hamilton, Saeed Blacknall and Mike Gesicki will set the pace for the passing game and provide plenty of size as well. Hamilton has played in 40 college games already and has catches in 38 of them. Gesicki is a candidate to be the league’s best tight end in 2017. He had five touchdowns and 48 catches as a junior last year.
There is rising talent in Happy Valley as well. Juwan Johnson’s spring might have been as promising of a step forward as any player at any position in the Big Ten. His 6-foot-4, 218-pound frame provides yet another big target for quarterback Trace McSorley through the air.
Next in line: Indiana might not have the depth at wide receiver that rosters like Ohio State's and Michigan's (both teams could end up with very dangerous passing attacks) can claim, but the Hoosiers have a one-two punch that could be as tough to cover as any in the Big Ten if both are moving at full speed. Nick Westbrook and Simmie Cobbs Jr. are both tall and fast and able to bring down most balls thrown in their vicinity.
Cobbs missed almost all of 2016 with an ankle injury after racking up more than 1,000 receiving yards the previous season. Westbrook had 995 receiving yards in Cobbs’ absence last season, which is more than any other receiver returning to the Big Ten next season. Indiana could also add a speedy smaller option if J-Shun Harris gets healthy after missing both of the past two years with ACL tears.
Don’t sleep on: Nebraska features a good mix of experience and young studs. If all of them hit their potential, they could have more options than most defenses are equipped to handle. The group starts with De’Mornay Pierson-El and Stanley Morgan Jr., both of whom impressed coaches this spring with increased speed and the way they handled a transition into leadership roles.
The Huskers are hoping that pair will be complemented by some incoming freshmen with impressive resumes. Keyshawn Johnson Jr. and Jaevon McQuitty didn’t get an opportunity to do much during their first semester on campus. Joining them will be blue-chip prospect Tyjon Lindsey. If a couple of the young guys are ready to contribute, new quarterback Tanner Lee will be able to spread the ball. One concern that could slow them down is the roster’s lack of experience at tight end.
The Big Ten may not break its lengthy drought of sending a quarterback into the first round of the NFL draft with this year’s crop, but that doesn’t mean there’s any lack of talent at the position. Most of the league’s top teams return starters under center this fall -- and most of those starters have some healthy competition to keep them honest during the summer workouts.
This week we’ll be highlighting the best groups on the offensive side of the ball at several positions as well as some other teams and players that are worth watching closely. We start the week with a review of the best quarterback depth charts in the conference heading into 2017.
Best of the best: Ohio State returns the most productive quarterback in program history to operate an offense that promises to let him unleash some deeper throws this year. J.T. Barrett has accounted for exactly 100 touchdowns heading into his senior season. New offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who previously had to stop Barrett when the Buckeyes played Indiana, said he thought the veteran leader made good strides on hitting longer throws in spring practice.
Barrett is a candidate to be the conference’s top player next season, but it’s Ohio State’s depth at quarterback that nudges them ahead of others to the top of this list. Backups Joe Burrow and Dwayne Haskins both have the skills to be starters. They threw three touchdown passes each in the spring game in Columbus, setting up what could be the most entertaining backup quarterback battle in college football this year.
Next in line: Penn State and Michigan both deserve mention here. Trace McSorley finished out his first year as a full-time starter with 12 touchdown passes in three games, including a conference title win and a trip to the Rose Bowl. He should have the weapons around him for another record-setting year in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions’ coaching staff also seemed pleased with the level of competition redshirt sophomore Tommy Stevens provided as McSorley’s understudy.
The situation isn’t much different in Ann Arbor. Wilton Speight remains the starter after helping lead Michigan and its offense to another 10-win season in 2016. Speight separated himself as the leader of a team that has a lot of pieces to replace next fall and a calm, confident presence on the field. He may not be the most physically talented quarterback on the roster, though. Redshirt freshman Brandon Peters showed he has both strength and touch during the spring season.
Don’t sleep on: Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson. The third-year starter made a significant jump forward between his first and second seasons leading the offense. If he can continue his upward trajectory again in 2017, the Wildcats will have as good a chance as any team to unseat Wisconsin as the West Division champions. Thorson threw for 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions last season. He also showed he has the potential to make plays with his feet, although he took off less often a year ago than during his rookie season. Top target Austin Carr is gone, but Thorson should get some help in replacing him from Oregon transfer Jalen Brown and the rest of a maturing receiver group.
The impact of a recruiting battle isn’t felt until the prospect hits the field for whichever team he chose. The team that missed out is often left with a void that the prospect could have filled and the team that won is left gloating if he pans out.
Since recruiting battles happen all the time within the Big Ten, there will likely be a few big names on the field this season that teams wish they could have landed. Here is a look at past recruiting battles within the conference and who they’re impacting.
RB Karan Higdon, Michigan
Higdon was headed to Iowa in the 2015 recruiting class until Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh swooped in and got him to commit to Michigan. Higdon was at the center of a few battles as Michigan was also pursuing running back Mike Weber, who eventually signed with Ohio State after debating between the Buckeyes and Michigan.
Iowa losing out on Higdon stings because the Hawkeyes ranked 64th in the nation in rushing yards last season and 71st in rushing touchdowns. The Hawkeyes also must replace Leshun Daniels Jr., who rushed for 1,058 yards last season.
Haskins and Jones both decommitted from Maryland and flipped to Ohio State during the 2016 cycle in what ended up being a big sting for the Terps. While Maryland is headed in the right direction, these two would have been huge additions to the roster.
Having Haskins in his second season at quarterback would have been a big help to Walt Bell’s offense and could have accelerated the process. The staff has landed some nice pieces, including ESPN 300 quarterback Kasim Hill in the 2017 class.
The Buckeyes have recruited well at quarterback and will have Haskins in the mix as the backup this season.
WR K.J. Hamler, Penn State
For quite some time in his recruitment, it seemed as though Hamler would be headed to Michigan State. An in-state prospect in the 2017 class, Michigan State was hot on his trail.
Needing receivers and playmakers on offense, Hamler would have been a big addition to the Spartans’ offense, but a late push by the Nittany Lions swung him in their favor.
Penn State coaches put in a lot of work to reel in Hamler and the staff eventually won out. While Michigan State did land a few other receivers in the class, none were as explosive as Hamler.
The shifty receiver sustained an ACL injury his senior high school season, but if he fully recovers, Hamler could be a big playmaker for the Nittany Lions.
WR Tyjon Lindsey, Nebraska
Lindsey’s recruitment in the 2017 cycle was a bit odd, to say the least. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound receiver was committed to Ohio State with Las Vegas (Nevada) Bishop Gorman teammates Haskell Garrett and Tate Martell until Lindsey abruptly decommitted and switched to Nebraska.
By all accounts, Lindsey seemed solid to the Buckeyes for most of his commitment. Nebraska started making a big push as the process got closer to signing day, ultimately leading to his commitment.
Ohio State has options on the roster, but Lindsey would have been a good fit and a big help on new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson’s offense.
ATH Ambry Thomas, Michigan
Thomas is a dynamic prospect who can play offense or defense and was heavily considering Michigan State as well as Michigan. He ultimately landed with Michigan, but would have been a much-needed addition to the Michigan State roster.
The Spartans could use help on both offense and defense, and Thomas is the type of player who realistically could have had an impact both sides in East Lansing. He is a local prospect and was one of the highest-ranked prospects in the state, so not only did it sting for Michigan State not to get him on the field on their side, but it also meant losing an in-state battle to their top rival.
Urban Meyer waited only a few minutes after his Ohio State team finished its 2016 season to promise the offense would be better next year. After an embarrassing 31-0 shutout loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff, Meyer threw some conviction behind the sentiment that his program's passing game had to improve.
"We will become a good passing team, we will," Meyer said at the time. "Next year."
Since then, the Buckeyes have made some tangible progress toward meeting that goal. They’re not alone among their Big Ten brethren either, which should be a scary thought for defensive coordinators in the Midwest and beyond.
Ohio State -- despite an air attack that didn’t live up to the head coach's standards -- scored 66 touchdowns in 2016. Michigan and Penn State each matched their East Division foe with the same number. For the first time in league history, three different Big Ten teams topped 500 total points. There’s reason to believe all three could be more prolific in 2017. Could next fall be a record-setting year for scoring in the Big Ten? If spring ball is any indication, there’s a pretty good chance.
All three quarterbacks from those programs return as seasoned veterans, and all three have some exciting new toys at their disposal.
Trace McSorley and the reigning champion Nittany Lions have a crew of tall, rangy receivers that can keep defenses from loading up too much to stop star running back Saquon Barkley. At the top of that list after the spring was 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore Juwan Johnson, who was the most improved player on the team according to his coaches and has a chance to be a breakout star next fall.
At Michigan, Wilton Speight raved about the two newest additions to his passing game. He called early enrollees Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black "pretty freaky" and "special" after just a few practices. Peoples-Jones was one of the top 25 high school players in the country last season and should be able to help the Wolverines' depleted two-deep right away. It was Black who turned the most heads this spring, with a touchdown catch in the spring game and an impressive performance in Rome.
Ohio State's J.T. Barrett has a strong cast of receivers, too, but his biggest upgrade comes in the form of new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. The former Indiana coach is working to restore Ohio State's deep-ball threat to the level it reached in 2014 when the Buckeyes scored 672 points (the highest total of any Big Ten team in at least the past 20 years) en route to a national championship.
"There is some enhancement going on now," Meyer told reporters in March. "We're not changing, we're enhancing what we do. If it was broken, we'd have to change it."
Compounding those high scores will be the fact that the most inexperienced groups on some of the league’s best teams are in the secondary. Ohio State has to replace three first-round picks in its defensive backfield. All four of the starters from a Michigan back end that had the best passing defense in the country in 2016 are gone. Penn State’s group suffered a blow this spring when top cornerback John Reid reportedly suffered a potential season-ending injury. The talent is still there, but youth usually leads to some mistakes.
The West Division will still provide some of the defense-first, slugfest-style football that one thinks of when talking about the Big Ten. Wisconsin should be stingy as usual and Northwestern will be able to ride the reliable workhorse Justin Jackson.
Elsewhere, though, some of the conference’s weaker offenses should be able to take some steps toward contributing to an influx of points. Purdue (24.6 points per game in 2016) hired Jeff Brohm after he wrapped up his season in Western Kentucky with the highest-scoring offense in the nation. Maryland (25.8) has the playmakers to make another jump under offensive coordinator Walt Bell and his fast-paced attack. Receiver Mikey Dudek should be able to help Illinois (19.7), too, if he stays healthy for a full season.
The Big Ten climbed back into the conversation as one of college football’s toughest conferences, especially in the East Division, over the past several years by adding speed and innovative coaches. It’s no surprise that the points are starting to stack up, and they could be coming in some unprecedented bunches in 2017.